“Seen, Recognized, and Loved,” with Jacoby Miles ’20
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with 2020 grad Jacoby Miles. She describes herself as a business administrator, lover of the arts, apologetics enthusiast, and lover of people. At the age of 15, she was paralyzed from the chest down due to a gymnastics accident. She has worked hard to gain strength back, but is still confined to a wheelchair with limited mobility. She says her life has never been the same after the accident, but it has changed in the best way too. Jacoby, thank you so much for joining us today.
Jacoby Miles: Yeah, thank you so much for having me today. I’m so excited to be here and to be able to share a little about myself and my story and where God’s brought me thus far.
Amanda: Well, a little bit of background. Your parents were married while they were both attending SPU, right? And then I think you told me you and your twin brother were actually the subject of an article in The Falcon?
Jacoby: Yeah, so my parents got married when they were probably juniors at SPU and then had my twin brother and I. That in itself was a big surprise for them. They were not expecting to have us that quickly, and then to find out that they were having twins was even more of a surprise. I think they were kind of freaking out when they found out that they were going to have one, but then when they found out they were going to have two, it actually kind of did something to my father where he just relinquished the stress and was like, “Okay, Lord, there’s absolutely no way I can do this on my own, so I’m good. You got this.” When my brother and I were about one or two years old, The Falcon did a little article on us and just kind of took a few pictures of us roaming around the SPU campus. It’s a super cute article.
Amanda: I love that idea, and I think we all can kind of relate to the fact that you’re stressing about something that you can do yourself or you think maybe it’s possible you can do it by yourself, but when you absolutely can’t and you think, “There is no way I’m doing this alone,” there’s relief in that almost, like, “Okay. Now I’m going to have to get some help.”
Amanda: “And it will all work out.” So you grew up on the SPU campus. Did you always want to go to SPU?
Jacoby: I did grow up there for the first couple years of my life, and then we ended up working our way down south from Seattle, but that wasn’t always my top desire, to go to SPU. I knew my parents had gone to SPU, and had kind of been thinking, “You know what? I think I want to go to college out of state somewhere,” and then that ended up changing when I had my gymnastics accident. I decided, “You know what? I want to be able to stay somewhere close so that my parents can continue being my caregivers,” and SPU came to mind. I was like, “You know what? I do love SPU.” We grew up, all growing up going to visit SPU campus and walking around the campus because that’s where my parents went. It was always so much fun. So finally, for the first time in my life, I thought, “You know what? I think I want to go to SPU.”
Amanda: I think I understand that, wanting to not go someplace you’ve known your whole life. You want to challenge yourself. You want to spread your wings. But on the other hand, sometimes it can be this really wonderful soft place to fall if it’s someplace that you’ve known growing up. Do you mind telling us a little bit about your accident and how that changed things for you?
Jacoby: Yeah, absolutely. So like mentioned in the beginning of this podcast, when I was 15 years old, I was a competitive gymnast at the time and I had been working on a bar dismount that I had competed lots of times before called the double back. I went up one day in practice to work on this move, and I ended up letting go of the bar too early and I opened up too early in my flip and I ended up landing on my neck and was instantly paralyzed from the chest down. From that moment on, it really was just a whole reality shift, reality change. I no longer could do things for myself. I had to get help doing everything, and I was in the hospital for about a month, about five weeks after my accident just learning how to do life after a spinal cord injury. It definitely had its ups and downs. I think in the beginning, I had a lot of support. I still have a lot of support to this day. But I had a lot of support and I really was very optimistic on my future and what I could expect, and thinking, “I’m going to be okay. I have all the support I need, my faith in the Lord, and He’s my rock. He’s there for me through all of this.”
“It definitely had its ups and downs. I think in the beginning, I had a lot of support. I still have a lot of support to this day. But I had a lot of support and I really was very optimistic on my future and what I could expect, and thinking, ‘I’m going to be okay. I have all the support I need, my faith in the Lord, and He’s my rock. He’s there for me through all of this.'”
And then in the midst of all that, kind of the reality of the situation really settling in as well and realizing, “Oh, man, my life is going to look a lot different moving forward.” And so I think those early years were definitely, I had to adjust. And each stage of life, you know, first coming home, that was an adjustment. And then deciding I want to go back to high school and finish high school, that was adjustment. Learning how to interact with other students and other kids as someone being in a wheelchair. And then the next adjustment was attending SPU, deciding to go to SPU. There’s just a lot of life stages when someone has a disability that they really have to wrestle through and struggle through and figure out how they can continue to persevere and endure and have a meaningful life despite something like a spinal cord injury.
Amanda: So 15 and 16, talk about peak years of trying to find who you are by yourself, aside from your family and your siblings, and who you want to be. Really, that individuation. And right in the midst of that you suddenly need more people around you than ever. You’re more reliant on others. How did you come to peace with that desperately wanting to be an individual and yet more than ever needing those people in your life?
Jacoby: From the time I was a little girl, I was a very type A personality, very independent, very self-driven. My parents and my family will joke that even as a little girl, I was bossing my twin brother around, telling him what to do and where to go and where to put his chair when we were going to watch a movie. I’ve always just been the leader of the two of us, really, just bossing him around. I think when I had my injury, that still was very much the case. I was very independent and, like you said, at that age, you’re already — you’re in junior high. You’re trying to figure yourself out, who you are, your identity. I am so grateful that I was raised in such a God-fearing home, a home that loves the Lord, that loves Jesus, and I really have to attest to my parents for just being amazing human beings that really taught me to lean on the Lord in hard times in my life. I think when I had my injury, that was something that I really did lean on, was realizing, “Hey, this is really hard and this all sucks, but I truly believe that God wants what’s best for my life, and He’s never going to settle for anything less than what’s best. I have to trust that me being paralyzed right now, me not being able to help myself and having to rely on other people to help me is what He deems best right now.”
“I am so grateful that I was raised in such a God-fearing home, a home that loves the Lord, that loves Jesus, and I really have to attest to my parents for just being amazing human beings that really taught me to lean on the Lord in hard times in my life. I think when I had my injury, that was something that I really did lean on, was realizing, ‘Hey, this is really hard and this all sucks, but I truly believe that God wants what’s best for my life, and He’s never going to settle for anything less than what’s best. I have to trust that me being paralyzed right now, me not being able to help myself and having to rely on other people to help me is what He deems best right now.'”
I feel like with anyone, when they go through something very traumatic like that in their life, you can do one of two things. You can choose to moan and groan and really just become depressed and just settle in that and not move forward with life or you look at the situation and you just say, “Hey, this is my reality right now. I need to choose to either just sit here and not do anything with it or say I’m going to make the best of it.” I think that’s kind of what I decided to do in my mind was, “You know, this is my reality and I still want my life to have purpose and meaning. So I am going to continue moving forward in life and just decide I’m going to try to help other people through what I’m going through and help bring other people hope, just as I know that Jesus has brought me hope in my hard situation.” So really, from a young age, having to understand that my identity and who I am doesn’t come from the people I hang with or what I even do, like a gymnast — I was a gymnast. My identity doesn’t come from being a gymnast. It really does only come from being a child of God.
From a very young age, I had to learn that, and so I think I had to grow up pretty quickly, and I’m thankful to the Lord that He really did help get me through that season. I think there were definitely days in those early years throughout high school where I did have to wrestle with some of these thoughts of, “Man, it kind of sucks when I can’t go do this with the rest of my friends or I can’t go to this event or I can’t do this with them,” and having to wrestle with that reality, but always coming back to the fact, “Okay. Even though this is hard, I know that this is where the Lord wants me right now.” That’s definitely something that I’m so grateful for, is that I had a strong relationship with Jesus to start with and despite the adversity, it’s only been strengthened over these years.
Amanda: We’ve talked a little bit about your family, and it seems like their ability not just to rely on the Lord but also to really come together as a family in all things, to come together to make everybody’s dreams come true. Because it’s not just you and your brother, right? You have quite a few other siblings as well.
Amanda: And as a parent, to have to shift everything, your day-to-day activity, but then you also have these other kids and their activities. Talk us through what it was like for, really, your whole family to rally around you to get you through the college experience.
Jacoby: Absolutely. I have five other siblings, so along with my twin brother, I have two other sisters and two other brothers, so there’s a lot of us. After my injury, that really was, for me, a big blessing. I’m the oldest child, and so all the other ones really just helped rally behind me and were some of my greatest supports. They also, in a sense, had to kind of grow up early a little bit, because a lot of times kids those ages, within the junior high years, elementary years, kids can be selfish. They can also be selfless, but a lot of the times, that’s kind of the joke. They just think about themselves. They had to learn to be selfless at such a young age. They were required to help me wash my face, brush my teeth, give me lunch, grab things off a counter for me, take me places, drive me places. They had to be taught, “This life is not just about you. You have to be willing to serve other people and to give of yourself.” And so there was a lot of that. I think that’s really how we got through it. My parents, they are very go-with-the-flow kind of people, and so in a way that was very much a blessing for me as someone who’s more type A. And in this kind of situation where someone suffers from a spinal cord injury and life really does halt for a second when you’re trying to get yourself together and figure out what just happened, my parents were the kind of people that, yes, it was still very hard on them, absolutely. But at the same time, they decided, “We are going to keep living life, and all the kids are going to keep living life with us and we’re going to make this work,” and really just being creative. When I decided that I wanted to attend SPU, both my parents were like, “We are going to help make this happen for you. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re excited, and this is an all-family affair.”
So that’s basically what happened. My parents would just commute with me to SPU as I attended and my siblings were super helpful as well in driving each other around to practices and to school and games. They’ve just, my whole family, really, they’ve always been very adaptable, have a lot of tenacity and just very supportive in whatever any of us desire to do in life that’s good. We’ve always just encouraged each other and exhorted each other to lean into the Lord in those moments and to rely on each other and to support each other and to know, hey, it might look crazy, might be organized chaos, but we are going to make these things happen and the Lord’s going to be with us through it. That’s kind of how we’ve been able to do it.
Amanda: I think universities need to come up with some sort of diploma/graduation certificate for the family members. Because your struggle, it was something people could see, but there’s so many families that we don’t see that struggle. We don’t see how many people took a second job or gave up their car so the student could commute. So many different things. I wish we had some sort of family certificate that’s like, “You got this too.” Right?
Jacoby: Yeah. (laughs)
Amanda: “You are a big part of this achievement.”
Jacoby: Yes, absolutely. We actually did joke when I graduated from SPU. I said, “And Mother, you have an honorary degree for commuting and being there with me all these four years.” So yeah, I agree with that.
Amanda: We’ll have to try and make something like that happen. But one could probably guess by the way you talk and your wonderful outlook on life that you also want to give back to others who’ve experienced what you’ve experienced. Can you tell us about Beyond Suffering, who they serve, and how that program works?
Jacoby: Yeah, absolutely. Beyond Suffering is a course that was started by a nonprofit organization called Joni and Friends, which is headquartered out of Agoura Hills, California. It was started by a woman named Joni Eareckson Tada. Some people may know her story. Maybe some people don’t. But she was a woman who, back in the ’60s or ’70s, had a diving accident. She broke her neck, similar to myself, around the C4-C5 vertebrae in the back of her neck and also was instantly paralyzed, and she has lived in a wheelchair now for, I believe, 50-plus years. God really just inspired her in the earlier years to start this nonprofit organization to help share the Gospel with families who have children or adults with disabilities and really just show them that there’s hope even in the midst of disability, and that there’s life in the midst of disability, and helping provide all around the world. So it’s within the US but also in other countries that there’s resources and there’s help available. Their mission statement at Joni and Friends is to “glorify God as we communicate the Gospel and mobilize the global church to evangelize, disciple, and serve people living with disability.” Their hope and prayer through that is that as the churches are mobilized, as people do these things with families who have disabilities, their vision is a world where every person with a disability finds hope, dignity, and their place in the body of Christ.
Something that Joni always says is that the church isn’t complete if you don’t have people with disabilities serving in your church. I couldn’t agree with that more. Really what the Beyond Suffering course does — and it’s something that I’ve been an instructor for now for about three years — is that it just provides lessons and trainings on the history of disability within the United States, history within some other countries, as well as what is it like for families who have adults with disabilities? What is it like for families who have children with disabilities? What is God’s heart towards disability? How can we find hope in a world that seems so hopeless sometimes? It’s really just such an amazing course, and it’s something that I had to take when I was an intern for Joni and Friends a couple years ago. They asked me to be an instructor for it for other interns moving forward, and I was more than happy to agree. I’ve been connected now with Joni and Friends for a couple years, and it’s just been such a blessing to really be a part of their mission and their vision for the nonprofit.
Amanda: Fantastic. Fantastic work that they are doing. I’m sure it’s a lot. There are a lot of things you can learn, and I’m sure it’s constantly changing with technology and things like that. But if you could say one thing to families who are maybe early in this process, who have just recently had their family member go through an accident or illness, what would you tell the people who are still trying to find their sea legs with this new situation?
Jacoby: I know it’s different for everyone when these kinds of things happen to people, and so you always want to be very careful in what you say to people after these kinds of injuries, but something that I found to be very helpful for myself and for my family, and I know for many other people who have gone through similar situations, is just to keep living life. Don’t stop living life. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes we kind of go through these situations and we think we need to halt everything and we can’t do certain things anymore. It can be hard to keep living life and to figure out creative ways of how to do that. So I really would just encourage these families that right now it is very hard. It’s very difficult. You’re having to adjust. But don’t forget to keep living life, moving forward, because there is life after this. There is life in the here and now. It is possible to have a fulfilling and a meaningful life even after these kinds of things happen. And also in the midst of all that to remember that the Lord gives us enough strength and grace for today. Not tomorrow, just today. And that there’s enough worries of its own for today, and so living in the moment — because a lot of times when you go through situations like this and accidents or injuries or paralysis, whatever it is, it can be hard to get through a single day, and sometimes moments. And so just reminding yourself that I have been given enough strength and grace for this moment, and then the next moment, and then the next moment, and just living in the moment. Those would probably be the two things that I would really encourage people with, is don’t stop living life. Keep living. And to trust the Lord in that moment.
Amanda: I think that’s good advice for anyone who’s gone through a major transition, anyone who’s gone through loss and it feels like your life will never be the same. And it might never be the same, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.
Amanda: Right? That’s something I think we all need to hold onto when those curveballs inevitably show up into our lives. Well, you’re doing so many things now. I know you have a job, but you also have a side gig right now with your mom. Do you want to tell us about that?
Jacoby: Yeah. Currently I’m an administrator at a church, but along with that, my mother is running for the Puyallup School Board here, and she asked me to be her campaign manager. When she first asked me, I was like, “I don’t even know what that means. What does it even mean to be a campaign manager? I don’t know what that entails. What am I supposed to do? I don’t know anything about it.” I was super stressed. And then my mother and I really were just praying about it, because my mom said, “If you’re not my campaign manager, I’m not running for school board.” So I was like, “Well, Mother, that’s quite a bit of pressure you’ve put on me.”
Jacoby: But in reality, she was not putting it on me. We both were just really sensitive and were very prayerful about it, if this was something that the Lord wanted us to do. We both really got confirmation. My mom got confirmation that, yes, this is something He wants me to do, and I really felt a peace from the Lord that He was going to be with me through this, and He was going to be my wisdom, and that he wanted me to help my mom in this endeavor. We’ve been doing this now since May, beginning of May, and election season is coming up here in two weeks, or the day, Election Day. It really has been a journey. There was a lot of research, a lot of conversations with people in the early days here trying to figure out what I’m doing. Now I’ve kind of gotten the hang of things and have been introduced to some people and everyone’s been super helpful. It’s been a wild ride. Campaigning, man, kudos to all those people out there who have run campaigns. I did not realize how much effort and how much work it is to run a campaign, and the energy level it takes, the endurance it takes, the amount of research, work, effort, doing things that you might not be comfortable doing. It’s a whole ’nother world, just a complete ’nother world that you’re living in for a while. We’ve been blessed to have some support as well and so many volunteers. If anything, whether my mom wins or loses, it has definitely been an amazing learning experience and an amazing growing experience, and I’m thankful that I’ve been able to help her do this. So yeah.
Amanda: Do you think you’ll ever run for office?
Jacoby: Oh goodness.
Jacoby: Never say never, right? But at least right now, I have no desire to run for office, but people keep telling me, “You know, campaign managers, they make good money and I think you’re pretty good at it.” But currently, I have no desire to run a campaign again. But who knows? I’ve always told people when they ask me, “What do you want to do in the future? What are your plans? What’s something that you’re passionate about?” There’s a lot of things I’m passionate about, but I’ve always been very kind of free-flowing in terms of my career and my future. I just have always told people, “I have a passion for communicating truth to people.” If I can communicate truth through business, which is something I’m fairly decent at, amazing. I love being able to just show folks, so communicating help and truth to people in the midst of whatever that looks like, whether it’s a for-profit job, a nonprofit job, I’m down. I just kind of have been asking the Lord each step of my journey, “Hey, where do you want me right now? Are you leading me here right now?” He’s always been so faithful to show me exactly where He wants me in the moment, and I’m very thankful for that.
Amanda: All right. Well, if you’re listening and you have a campaign and you need a campaign manager, you can give Jacoby a call.
Amanda: Speaking of the public and policies and wider society, what do you wish everyone out there knew about living with a disability? What would make your life easier if we all knew or understood what?
Jacoby: My answer to that question would probably be that we have the same overall needs, wants, and desires as any other human being, and that’s to be seen, to be recognized, and to be loved. I think a lot of times people with disabilities are rejected, they are overlooked, and they are stereotyped, and it can be really hard for people within the disability community to feel like they really belong. I recently heard someone say that within the church — and honestly, I would think as well within society — is that you know someone belongs when you miss them when they’re gone. I think within the church sometimes, too, for those with disabilities, that is a struggle. I think what everyone should know is that, just like you, if you’re someone that’s able bodied, has no form of disability, that just like you want to be seen, recognized, and loved, and belong, so do those with disabilities. And so if you ever see someone in a wheelchair or maybe someone that has some kind of disability, whatever it is, just make a little extra effort to know that you see them, to let them know that you see them, that you recognize them. Give them a smile. Acknowledge that they’re in your presence. That alone, even for me, it really means so much to me when people recognize me, see me, give me a smile or give me a hug, say hello. It just shows me that they see me and that they are happy I’m there.
“I think what everyone should know is that, just like you, if you’re someone that’s able bodied, has no form of disability, that just like you want to be seen, recognized, and loved, and belong, so do those with disabilities. And so if you ever see someone in a wheelchair or maybe someone that has some kind of disability, whatever it is, just make a little extra effort to know that you see them, to let them know that you see them, that you recognize them. Give them a smile. Acknowledge that they’re in your presence.”
Amanda: I would assume that the reason that that doesn’t happen more often is that we can feel uncomfortable because we don’t necessarily know what that person wants or what their needs are. And yet I would venture to guess most people living in a wheelchair or living with a disability would prefer that more people try.
Jacoby: Yeah, absolutely. Before my accident, a little over 10 years ago, I was definitely guilty of that, where it can feel uncomfortable and you don’t know what to say. You don’t know how to approach people. But after having my injury, I’ve realized that we tend to overthink those things, and that, again, really, all they want is to be seen, recognized, and loved. And so that might look different for everyone with a different kind of disability, but completely ignoring them, completely rejecting them, that is not the answer. That is the case a lot of times. People don’t know what they don’t know and they’re afraid of what they don’t know. We just have to … Something that I’m passionate about and working with Joni and Friends with the Beyond Suffering course, is helping develop a heart for people with disabilities, helping show people why God has a heart for people with disabilities. Something that Joni and Friends leans on, they call it the Luke 14 Mandate, and it’s where they’re talking about who will be at the wedding feast. There’s the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, and the dinner host is compelling them to go out and bring these people in. “Compel them to come so that His house may be full.” I think that’s what the Lord wants from all of us as well, is to compel those with disabilities to come and to feel like they belong and that they are welcome in whatever way that looks like. Whatever you can muster, just helping people know that they are loved.
Amanda: And as long as that house doesn’t include people with disabilities, it’s not yet full.
Jacoby: Yeah, absolutely.
Amanda: Amen. All right, Jacoby, every time we talk I love talking to you. You have so much energy and I always want to take some of that on for myself. So I’m really interested in your answer to our famous last question that we ask all of our guests. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have all of us do?
Jacoby: Well, if everyone in Seattle tomorrow sought to love everyone that they spoke to like Jesus would love them, that would make the world a better place. That would make Seattle a better place. And someone might say, “Well, I don’t know how Jesus loved people.” Then I would encourage people to go read the Gospels, and you’ll see how Jesus loved people. I think if people did that just one day, loved everyone that they encountered or saw that day like Jesus would love them, then Seattle would be a beautiful place that day.
Amanda: Amen. Amen. Well, Jacoby, thank you so much for joining us today, and I hope you’ll let us know what happens with the campaign, and maybe we’ll put a note in the description about what your mom’s doing and maybe what campaign you’re working on next.
Jacoby: (laughs) Absolutely, yes. I will keep you posted.
Amanda: Awesome. Thanks so much for coming today, Jacoby.
Jacoby: Thank you, Amanda.